BOOKS: Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2005:
Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West
by Frances Wood
Fulcrum Publishing (16200 Table Mountain Parkway, Suite 300,
Golden, CO 80403), 2004.
247 pages, paperback. $16.95.
Frances Wood lives on the far side of South Whidbey Island,
about 10 miles from here, as the crow flies–along with most other
birds common to the Pacific North-west. Most resident species have
some presence here, in habitat that varies from old-growth cedar to
open fields, orchards, rocky beaches, and light-density human
development. Most Pacific Flyway migratory species stop over to feed.
Counting 20 species in 10 minutes is often no more difficult
than stepping outside, amid hummingbirds, chickadees, nuthatches,
finches, wrens, sparrows, American robins, and towhees, among
the most frequent visitors; listening for woodpeckers, with the
pileated, hairy, and downy varieties all nesting nearby; checking
the sky for great blue herons, bald eagles, redtail hawks, osprey,
northern gos-hawks, and American kestrels while walking to the car;
watching for startled owls gliding across the road between here and
the ferry landing; and observing the variety of gulls, ducks,
cormorants, and pigeons at the landing while waiting to board.
Scarcer species, requiring books to identify, appear about
once a week.
We moved to Whidbey Island, in the middle of Puget Sound,
about two years before Wood arrived and began making my bird
identifications easier through her monthly birding column for the
South Whidbey Record.
While I often did not know what I was looking at, and still
don’t, I was already aware that I was seeing more different kinds of
birds just by looking out the ANIMAL PEOPLE office window several
times a day than I had ever seen anywhere else except the now
lamentably depleted Keoladeo sanctuary at Bharatpur, India.
Keoladeo, when we visited in 1997, before the devastating
drought of the past few years, reputedly had more birds than any
location of similar size in the world.
We have relatively few birds who are as spectacularly bright
as the parrots or as unique as the hoatzen we saw on a 1999 trek into
the Peruvian Amazon, but we do have more species and more
individuals. Indeed, one of the truly odd moments in our time here
came when two sisters visiting from India lamented the paucity they
perceived of birds. The brush in front of them was seething with
birds at that very moment–but they were camouflaged, small and
brown, not nearly as obvious as the few ringnecked parakeets who
might have occupied a similar niche back home.
Oddly enough, I have never met Wood, but have often
exchanged bird sightings with her by e-mail, probably starting with
the grey jay who flew down from Mount Ranier one clear summer day to
spend the afternoon visiting his Steller’s jay cousins at our feeder.
About two hours from sundown he finally headed home. He was
probably the only species I ever saw here whom Wood hadn’t.
Wood writes about our myriad local birds for two audiences:
fellow birders, who form instant mental pictures of each species she
names, and general readers, whom she tries to infect with her own
enthusiasm for birding, though they may not be able to name 20
Wood typically pursues the difficult balance by describing
the human interest angles involved in each memorable sighting. She
also tends to provide enough descriptive detail about the birds she
mentions to enable non-experts to follow her stories without
constantly consulting a field guide.
While many birding columns read as if cribbed almost entirely
from field guides, Wood’s best, edited into chapters of her book,
contain little that could be found in a field guide. Her book
audience probably consists chiefly of serious birders. Her newspaper
audience are mostly people who will never be experts, but take an
interest in what they see, and it is writing for this audience that
keeps her work accessible.